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The AI Mirage in Hiring: Are Vendors Innovative Solutions or Industry Snake Oil?

March 6, 2024
5 min read
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      5 min read
      Max Armbruster
      Max Armbruster
      CEO Talkpush

      Navigating the complexities of hiring in the hair styling industry

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      Episode 85_End Cover (3)

      In this podcast episode, Max and Gustavo Serbia of Hair Cuttery explore the world of hair salon recruitment. They discuss the unique challenges hiring managers in this industry might face, and the balance between building a cohesive team and maintaining a uniform standard for hiring. Listen as they discuss the inner workings of the hair salon industry and the art of building the perfect team.


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      Don't feel like listening? You can read the entire transcript right here. 👇



      Max: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the recruitment hackers podcast. I'm your host, Max Armbruster. And for my first guest of 2023 I'm delighted to welcome Gustavo Serbia who is the head of talent - correct me if I'm wrong. Yes, I got that. Head of talent at Hair Cuttery, one of the leading salons. I mean, beauty and hairstyling salons nationwide. Please -  Actually I'll let Gustavo introduce what the group does but they do a lot of haircuts; I know that much yet. 

      And so we're gonna get into the art of hiring stylists and understanding the art of recruiting hairstylists and stylists in general. What can you do to attract this particular audience and to avoid making hiring mistakes? And talk about how that practice may be disrupted by technology, of course. Gustavo, thanks for joining. And - yeah, please; what did I get wrong? In my intro?

      Gustavo: Well, I'm the head of HR for Hair Cuttery. And I oversee the entire HR function, including recruiting. I have a wonderful team that works day in and day out to try to find a stylist. Yes, we are a salon chain. It's a privately owned salon chain in the US - 500 salons in 10 states and about 5000 employees as a whole. And, you know, I like to also give a little bit of framework that while we're in the business of finding stylists, some of the audience may not necessarily find that relatable because they're not looking for stylists, because it's so specialized. 

      But we're really in high volume. So we are in the high volume business of hiring. We just happen to be hiring - 99% of our hires are really stylists that are working at the salon, cutting hair, colouring hair, etc. And as you can see, hair is not required to work in the company. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.

      Max: For those audio listeners here, Gustavo has a very shiny cranium.

      Gustavo: Yep, yeah.

      Max: Probably set up the lights just so you have a third eye.

      Gustavo: Exactly. Yeah. So it looks like a halo effect.

      Max: Right? Well. So, to put us in the mindset of what a hairstylist is, and does, I mean, we are talking about somebody who is holding a knife next to someone's face for 8/10 hours a day chatting… And so it has to be - I mean, these are skills that are sort of interpersonal communication skills, character skills that are very hard to capture in the written form, right? So a resume is not going to tell you that much. So what are you looking for? Exactly?

      Gustavo: Yeah, so number one thing we look, obviously you got to have a license. In the US, you have to be licensed in order to cut hair. So that's number one thing. You don't have a license, it’s going to be hard for us to consider you. After that -

      Max: Hold on; if I’m a - if I wanna be a hairstylist and get the license, how long is that process? Is that something you can just apply online or how does that work?

      Gustavo: No, you have to go to school. You have to go to cosmetology school. There are a number of hours that have to be completed depending on the state. Some states have 1000 hours, others have 1500 hours. Yeah, and they have to pay.

      Max: It’s a higher bar than getting a driving license.

      Gustavo: Yes, yes, definitely. Well, you know, obviously, we want to protect the consumer. But each state does it slightly differently on how they go about it. Like there's not a consistent application across all 50 states. So we have to understand what the requirements are in some states versus others. So, once you have a license, or if you're in school, and you're going to graduate, let's say, within 90 days, you're going to obtain your license, we want to talk to you. And then the second thing is personality, right? You know, a lot of the stylists that go into the industry, some of them do it because they're exploring what they want to do. 

      Others like the whole idea of the creative process. But regardless, if you're the creative kind, or the one that is looking for a job, or the one that is exploring what to do in the future, you're going to be talking to people. And because you're going to be talking to people, we give you commissions, in our case, but in the industry, it’s very common for you to get commissions out of product sales, you have to have the ability to interact with the client.

      Max: Yeah, it must be the nicest people in the world who want to work in that profession. Because, you know, as you said, like you're interacting nonstop, although, I mean, you have to be able to read the room, sometimes I go get a haircut, and I really don't want to talk to somebody, but they still chat me up.

      Gustavo: Yes, we tell our stylist, you gotta read what the guests want, right? Some, this is a very intimate interaction, if you think about it, I'm in your space for at least 20 to 30 minutes, perhaps longer. I'm touching you. So you have to be conscious of the space, you have to be conscious of the body language that the person is giving you. But it's also a relationship that can be lasting years, because you may decide to go to the same stylist; my mother went to the same stylist, I mean, since I was nine years old, until a couple of years ago when her stylist passed away. 

      That's the type of relationship that we're hoping our stylists are going to create with a guest. So that guest comes back to us instead of going somewhere else. But outside of that; obviously, we'll look at availability, where can you work? Because you know, we need to accommodate when the guest is there. We don't look at work, where have you worked, to make a decision. It’s really irrelevant for us, your work history, from the standpoint of: you have a license, you have the capability? Let's put you behind the chair.

      Max: Yeah, see if that works. And are there some - you talked about character being important. So I gather from that, that you don't want a hardcore introvert for a job like this. You want somebody who's able, who enjoys interacting. What are some other sort of personality traits that you'd be particularly on the lookout for? And follow-up question, how would you measure for those in a systematic way?

      Gustavo: Yep. So the measuring part is the hard part. And collaboration would be one. Right now, because of the talent market being what it is, we've eliminated any type of assessment to look for those traits. It's so competitive to find stylists, that the more barriers we put - while it may give us exactly what we're looking for - the challenge is finding the number of stylists that we need to satisfy the guests' demand, but collaboration -

      Max: You tried that in the past, you tried the assessment thing in the past, and it would eliminate a chunk of your talent pool that you just can't afford to eliminate anymore. And -

      Gustavo: It's a catch-22 because you want that profile. But what we've done is we've extended and said look, we have to extend the profile. Now, the hiring managers ultimately make the last decision as to whom to hire. So they have to assess those individuals and say, you know, I can live with the, let's say, the lack of training that this person has, because they're a recent graduate, or this person is very well established, has a book of business that they can bring to us. But I may have to work a little bit with the self-centeredness that this person may have because they're established and they have a book, right? 

      Versus automatically saying this person does not display this collaborative nature. Therefore eliminate them. No, we have to work within certain boundaries, but we've expanded those boundaries simply because there's a shortage out there. Now some people are going to argue they're not a shortage of talent. It's just how you treat - no, there is a shortage of talent in addition to the fact that you may have a shortage, because of how you treat people. The reality is that the demand for hair stylists is much higher than the supply is out there right now.

      Max: In most franchise operations, the final hiring decision is left to the franchisee, so that - because they want to have that ultimate control over the quality of the service delivered. And you know, they're there on the ground. So they can see with their own eyes who they're hiring, so it makes sense. They can give them the contract in person. But, of course, for the consistency of service and of the brands at a global level, it would make more sense to have everybody basically be - all the hiring decisions be centralized. 

      And for the franchise to receive - You know, the tickets they are - by the way, this guy is coming to work with you on Monday. And you've never spoken to him before. But he's approved by corporate so let's go ahead. Yeah, so where does Hair Cuttery stand on that sort of spectrum? And what are your thoughts on where the industry is going?

      Gustavo: So for us, because all of these salons are privately owned by the company, we really allow the hiring manager to make the decision. Meaning the recruiter finds the talent, presents the talent to the hiring manager, the hiring manager conducts the interview, the hiring manager makes the decision. If there's a disagreement between the recruiter and the hiring manager as to why this person is not being hired, they discuss it and use that information for the next potential hire. Right? Now, it really - now we have processes in place to try to achieve as much consistency as possible. 


      You know, if you think of Chick-fil-A, Chick-fil-A may have that level of control. I don't know if they have the control at the corporate level. But they have very rigorous requirements that regardless of the Chick Fil A - the food but they're also known for the service. So in order for you to hire the quality of people that you want, they may have -  it’d be likely to have a much more structural approach to the hiring. 

      Max: Are you a Chick-fil-A guy? 

      Gustavo: I like it. I'm not a huge fan. I used to be - I loved the milkshakes, but I don't go as often anymore, because I'm getting older. You gotta watch out for that.

      Max: I've never tried it. So maybe I'll take down an action bar after this call. Yeah. So yeah, I'm imagining like, the, in popular culture, the hair salon is a real place for the community to hang out. And as we were saying, you have to be friendly, with your customers, of course, you also have to be friendly with your colleagues, who you're gonna have to spend a lot of time with. So it must be an environment where the human bias is hard at work, where you know, the salon, the hiring manager like you said, he's gonna have a mental picture - he or she is gonna have a mental picture of who they want to hire. 

      So it must be hard to fight that, particularly in a very litigious environment such as the US. But it's, I guess it's part of the magic, right, because you want to have a team that gets along. And, you know, if the hiring manager is stripped away from their decision, on who they can work with, they're not going to be quite as happy to come to work. So hiring is, it works on both ends, you have to make the candidate happy, but you also have to make the hiring manager happy.

      Gustavo: Yeah, it's no different than any other industry in that regard. If somebody wants to, if somebody is saying we have to collaborate, right, and we have to be good stewards of each other's needs, then you have to have a conversation about it, you have to get parameters; you know, in our case, we talked about the values of real, respect, responsible and we always use them as a triad. You cannot be real, without being respectful. You cannot be real without being responsible. So you have to use all three. 

      So when somebody goes outside of that parameter, let's say they're just being disrespectful in the process, then we have a conversation in the context of that, not necessarily in the context of the decision. It’s how you went about the decision, not the decision itself, because the decision may be valid, but you were a little bit of an ass in the process. So you can't do that. Having said that - it is not a perfect process, because the moment you insert humans, we have biases, or tendencies or preferences, and we want those to be heard and known by others. 

      And now you may have a push/pull - I describe to my team all the time, we are going to always have a push/pull relationship with our operation counterparts, because we have a need to hire, but they also have a need to retain. So how do you create a balance between the two? I'm not saying that we're right and they're wrong; it’s simply saying we have to do both “and”; rather than saying it’s one or the other, because if you're hiring left and right, but you're losing them out the door, on the other end, at some point, your hiring is going to be affected. 

      So we talk about the fact that it is okay to have a push/pull, where it's not one side winning and the other one losing, but rather saying, what are your needs? What are my needs? And how do we compromise to achieve the common goal? It sounds utopian, but the reality is that the alternative is an infighting that at the end of the day is not going to get you the hire that you need or retain that person if you end up hiring them.

      Max: Yeah, it's - you're talking about infighting as a negative, but you also say that that conflict, that friction is necessary. So, it's a fine line, because in Sales - Sales will always complain that Marketing isn't delivering enough leads, and Marketing will always complain that Sales is not converting them well enough. And if you don't have, if you don't have both sides having an argument at some - you know, maybe there's a better word for it, but a discussion, or fight - one of them - 

      if there's no conflict, then there's no tension there, then they're not doing their job, like, I mean, they stopped caring about, achieving maximum performance. So it makes sense that there would be, yeah, there'd be tension there. And that your job would be to make sure it just doesn't get bloody. Nobody bruises their knuckles.

      Gustavo: Right, put some parameters around it, but you have to let that play out. Because the alternative is indifference, lack of interest. Then I just go through the motions and try to, you know, quiet quit, I guess, quiet quit behind, you know, behind closed doors, because I don't want to bother anybody else because I feel that nobody listens. There have to be those discussions. Now they're not comfortable all the time but they got to take place.

      Max: Going back to the more - the technical, the not soft skills, but the hard skills of stylists, the certification, you said is really the main criteria. But then does it ever get to, you know, sort of field testing? Or, you know, here's a bunch of hair, cut them for us. How do you validate this in the field?

      Gustavo: Yep. So we do a tech - what we call a technical interview, which is really bringing you into the salon. And you can either bring a model, which means that you bring somebody whose hair you're going to cut, or we provide a mannequin, which is actually an actual head, or a skin, it's called a skin, which is actually something that you wrap around a head that has hair, and then you can kind of cut it. So we evaluate your ability at that technical interview, primarily with the idea of where you're at. If you've been in the business for a while, we may have a discussion of what about that technical; 

      we ask you questions to ensure that you understand what is required to let's say, apply colour, or do certain haircuts. Because there's very - that's an area I mean - you can mess people's hair. So people need to know the technical aspects of, for example, mixing colouring chemicals, which is ultimately what they are. So we evaluate that, but what we've been working on is evaluating that in the context of how can we train you up. Versus how can we eliminate you from the process, right? Again, that's a harder conversation. Because that means somebody has to be training these individuals then. 

      If Max comes in, and Max is not good, let's say, at cutting men's hair and needs some training. How do you protect the brand to ensure that Max is not botching people's hair by cutting them poorly? But how do you also elevate Max to be able to cut men's hair? So we also have ongoing education that we do on a regular basis. Because that's the way you grow. Once you get the license, it's not like you go back to the same school to learn more. You really learn by doing within the salons; by the education that you get from the company that you're working for.

      Max: You mentioned that you hire some professionals who go there because they want to have an artistic mode of expression. They like styling, and they have - yeah, it's a form of expression. So, it's hard I imagine, to codify, you know, how to style properly? If you have some artistic vision in conflict? Take - Have you had some instances where it's just easier to hire somebody a bit younger? Because then you can show them the way you want it done here. 

      Whereas somebody who has been at it for 30 years would be like, no, no, I'm going to use that much hydroxide on all the hair. And that's just the way I do it.

      Gustavo: Yeah, we actually have not encountered those instances. You know, more experienced stylists may decide that they would prefer on their own. Yep. But in the instances where we've attracted, experienced stylists, they still abide, by the requirements - the fact that they're dealing with chemicals. Now, some may be a little bit more liberal than others, but they all know the consequences of, you know, burning somebody's hair, for example. But you would think that if I am that experienced, and I just want to do it my way or the highway in its totality, chances are that you would prefer to go somewhere else where you can actually do that on your own. 

      But, we do encounter some of that; particularly our high producers - high producers that are producing because they have a book of business. We - Our main requirement is that you can't do anything that is illegal, you can't do that. And you have to be a good co-worker. And from time to time, there’re still challenges because there's egos in the process. I have not heard in the two and a half years that I've been here, of instances where somebody was such a prima donna, that they wanted to do it the way they wanted to do it without consideration for the well-being of the individual, meaning of the guest. 

      Yes, there's always the oh, I can go on my own and make more money, or I don't want to abide by your dress code - we always have those. But it has never been in the context of, oh, I can get away with just not following chemical protocol and be okay.

      Max: That no, no, no, it's more “personal expression; and I can make more money elsewhere.” I get it.

      Gustavo: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

      Max: Okay. Yeah. So that sounds like a pretty traditional interaction with - from any employer-employee kind of context.

      Gustavo: Any employee-employer. Yep. Yeah. Yeah. No different.

      Max: All right, great. Well, I'd say good luck with the prima donnas. You know, I'm sure that we live in an age where the prima donnas, who want to start their own salons and their own home practice could find employment on the internet and find their clientele, but you said something that really caught my interest when you talked about people coming with their own book. So it's - there's a process for that. If somebody has been in the industry for 5/10 years, and that's kind of like - it's not; they don't have a resume, but they have 100 clients that always come to them, and they can bring that to your organization, and then they get a commission on that. Is that how it works?

      Gustavo: Yep. Well, because you know - Yeah, in our compensation model is based on commissions. So they get a commission and the more experience you have, the higher your commission percentage. So when you have a book, which is basically a conversation between the hiring manager and a prospective stylist, what is that book of business? And what can that translate in income for the individual? Because at the end of the day, compensation still rules, meaning I gotta be making money. If I'm not making money, I'm going to be looking, where else can I go and make money, particularly when you are an experienced stylist? 

      So that book translates into X amount of dollars. And because we are commissions based, we can know exactly how much they will be making. And then they can make a decision if that is something that aligns with what they want to be making. Keep in mind that, contrary to being on your own, as you know, you started your own business, it's not as easy as people sometimes think it is. So when you go on your own, be it on a private salon or a salon booth. Now you're responsible for all the financials, you know, the overhead, the legal processes. 

      With us - You gotta buy product, inventory, all of that. With us, we provide you everything. So when you come to us, all you have to do is show up, cut hair, and bring more guests. So people have to consider that as part of the equation.

      Max: No, I have a friend who works in a hedge fund, who has the same kind of arrangement where she's a trader, but she doesn't want to have to do all the license work and get a Bloomberg terminal and get an office and whatnot. So she's a trader inside a bigger hedge fund inside a bigger organization. And, and she feels like she's got her autonomy. So you know, it works at different levels in different industries.

      Gustavo Yep, yeah, yep. Yep. I think it's not unique to our industry, I think it's just individual choice of what your preference might be.

      Max: For these skilled workers - it's kind of like doctors, lawyers, stylists, they all have their book of clients. So you gotta manage those. All right, well, final question, I asked this to all my guests. Recruiting is fraught with mistakes. And we are all full of biases, as we discussed. So sometimes we make terrible mistakes. Not to - this is not a confessional. And this is - I'm not a Catholic priest. I just want to know, if you could share with our audience something wrong you did in the recruitment space, and what we can learn, a mis-hire you have done in the past.

      Gustavo: Yeah, I can give you a few. But the one that I can think of is I was working in a different industry. And we were hiring manager-level employees to oversee regions. And we flew a candidate in who on paper had all the - but there was something about the interaction that was just not working. And we could see it. The CEO could see it; because the CEO was involved. I could see it. And the recruiter manager could see it. Yet, we were so desperate, that we decided to move forward.

      Max: You could see it, but you couldn't describe it?

      Gustavo: No, no, we all could describe it. But we convinced ourselves that we still needed to proceed because we were desperate. And before this person started, we kind of realized, this is a mistake. But now we have to withdraw the offer. The person has resigned the other job. And the person went - online presence just started. I mean, lambasted us and rightly so. Right. And what I learned at that time is it's, it's one thing for me to say no. And for you to say yes. But when there's three of us say no. And we still proceed. Desperation cannot be the reason why. 

      And I know it's hard for people to process that. Because when you when you're in that, when you're bogged down by doing the work of others because you have that vacancy open and you see somebody that can come in, you need anything, oh, I can now turn it over to this person - doesn't work that way. It takes time. And I tell you from that moment, anytime that I've had the instinct; because most of it is gut instinct. One thing for me to have my gut instinct, but when two other people or at least another person have the same, we have to be very careful that we're not proceeding out of desperation, and really make a decision that we're not going to regret. 

      There will always be bad decisions. Right? But if you're seeing it, others are seeing it and your only reason to hire the person is well, but we need someone right away.

      Max: This person can do it on paper. Yeah.

      Gustavo: Yeah, yeah. 

      Max: Oh, good. Yeah, sounds painful. And of course, one should doubt his own instinct, but if your instinct and the instinct of a couple of other people are coming at work, then Mother Nature is telling you something; run away.

      Gustavo: I always say it is okay. If you're doubting your instincts. I start with the premise that I know I'm biased. I have my tendencies, my preferences, my way of seeing things and that doesn't make me right. It simply makes me believe something that I have to question to keep it in check. Not a sense of insecurity, but our sense of understanding that In order to work in the environments that I work; I have to work with others. So just because I see it one way doesn't necessarily make me right. Although I may pursue that anyways. But when others are involved, don't go that route, because now you're all in alignment, that you shouldn't do it and you still decide to do it, that - it was stupid. 

      I mean, transparently speaking, it was stupid. We paid for it. It was a pain to deal with it. It didn't get legal too much. But I mean, social media, she put us out there. Internally created a little bit of discomfort. And it was all out of desperation.

      Max: Okay. Well, I’m sorry you revisited that for us but maybe it’ll save someone from experiencing your pain sometime in the future so thanks Gustavo for opening up and for your insights on that unique industry. Really appreciate you coming on to the Recruitment Hackers podcast.

      Gustavo: Absolutely. Thank you for the invite, Max.

      Max: That was Gustavo Serbia from Hair Cuttery giving us a peek into the world of recruiting for hair stylists, a world where you have to sometimes put hair on a mannequin to test technical skills. And where you have to manage the sort of chemistry that works within each salon, where the hiring manager needs to get along well with the team, while at the same time trying to build a uniform standard for hiring. So an interesting balance there at work. Hope you enjoyed it, and that if you're interested in the beautiful world of high-volume recruiting and automation, you'll be back for more, please subscribe and share with other practitioners.


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